08/09/2005 12:58 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

In Praise of Virtue -- and "Indecency"

In his latest column, David Brooks paused to celebrate just how dramatically our moral virtue has improved. And rightly so: "the virtues of virtue," as he puts it, now quite clearly speak for themselves.

The only thing I disagree with in Brooks' column is what's missing: namely, any explanation for why our moral virtue has increased along with an increase in the violence, profanity, and sexual immorality of our popular culture.

Brooks may insist that our virtue has improved in spite of that culture, but my own thought is to point out what social conservatives often fail to recognize: that democratic culture exists as much to warn as it does to encourage. Ever since Sophocles endowed the world with Oedipus Rex (and undoubtedly even before), free societies have always relied upon theatrical, literary, and musical narratives to convey as much what not to do as what to do.

Both the virtue of our society and the "immorality" of our culture owe largely, I believe, to that tradition. The more political freedom a society grants its citizens, the more it relies upon common social mores to prevent chaos from bursting forth. Yet we are not born with those mores: we are taught them, and we rely upon culture to do the teaching. For us, this means watching the infidelities of Desperate Housewives rather than living them out, or viewing the emotional and physical toll of addiction on ER rather than at home.

So in the end we all ought to join Brooks in celebrating, for instance, the laudable decline in domestic violence. But we also need to appreciate that it was, in part, the very "indecency" of our culture that helped get us there.